Cruise charters feeling recession's effects

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Gay and lesbian vacationers, once heralded as hardier stock when it came to leisure bookings in hard times, are behaving a bit more like their mainstream counterparts in rocky 2009, at least in the experience of RSVP Vacations, which specializes in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travel.

Charlie Rounds, president of Minneapolis-based RSVP, whose product lineup of all-gay and -lesbian charters this year includes three oceangoing voyages and two European river cruises, said his booking windows have tightened along with everyone else's as the economy has contracted.

"People are booking closer in [whereas] the gay market used to book much further in advance," he said of 2009 sales. "I think the LGBT market is now no different than the mainstream market."

In fact, RSVP is finding that clients' willingness to go on cruises and other vacations increasingly has less to do with sexual/affectational orientation and more to do with whether potential travelers have children at home, "which translates into discretionary income," said Rounds.

"A two-income, heterosexual couple, aged 40, with no children are spending pretty much the same money as two childless, gay men," he said.

RSVP's first two charter cruises for the year -- a Caribbean sailing on Holland America's Eurodam from Feb. 13 to 20 and a Mexican Riviera itinerary on NCL's Norwegian Star from April 14 to 24 -- sold well and were, according to Rounds, the company's "two best cruises in 24 years."

But a summer Alaska charter on Holland America's Westerdam, scheduled to sail Aug. 23 to 30, is underperforming. So Rounds is turning to retailers to get the word out.

"We are on a really strong roll, but we've got a cruise in August that's not full, and we need agents out there right now selling it," he said.

Published rates for the seven-day cruise range from $949 for a standard inside stateroom to $4,999 for the penthouse veranda suite. As of press time, prices on cabins still available ranged from $1,159 to $3,999.

Although RSVP's pricing is usually 20% to 25% higher than its cruise partners' own rates on similar itineraries in the same seasons, due to what Rounds termed the charter company's "value-add," this year's Alaska cruise is priced more competitively.

"Our pricing vs. Holland America's own pricing [on Alaska sailings] the week before is really close," he said. "It's the first time I've seen our product so price-competitive with a mainstream cruise."

RSVP's 10-day Heartland Riverboat Cruise and Legendary Danube Cruise sailings in Europe this August are selling well, he noted, as is its next Southern Caribbean Cruise, set for Feb. 13 to 20.

"The Eurodam cruise is 75% sold out; we hope to sell out in the next month," Rounds said. "It's the short term people are looking at; in the long term, people are back booking RSVP a year out."

Visit www.rsvpvacations.com.

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